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CIO interview: Warren Breakstone, S&P Global Market Intelligence
S&P’s managing director and chief product officer for data management solutions talks about using data to make better decisions and how to continue innovating in a fast-moving market
How can companies make the most of their data? For Warren Breakstone, managing director and chief product officer for data management solutions at S&P Global Market Intelligence, the answer is listening closely to customers’ demands.
“I think the most important factor when you’re operating in an area that is innovating and moving so quickly is having tight connectivity with your clients. Standing still is very much moving backwards in this space,” he says, reflecting on a host of services his company has introduced to give executives in big companies the opportunity to make smart decisions on the insight that S&P holds and distributes.
“One of the mantras that we’ve introduced to the way we work is that we’re not just focused on building products, we’re focused on building relevant products – and the relevancy comes with a close connectivity to our clients.”
Formerly senior vice-president for operations and technology at Thomson Reuters, Breakstone joined S&P six years ago. His aim in his wide-ranging business leadership role is to help the company’s customers make better use of the information the firm collects.
“Data management is one of the most interesting, innovative and dynamic spaces in technology,” he says. “Our clients are increasingly looking to bring data directly into their environments – into their databases, into their data warehouses, into their data lakes, and then layer on their own tools and analytics to ultimately help them make better decisions.”
Those decisions could be in terms of spending choices by S&P’s big investment management clients, the development of better models in insurance firms or a whole host of insight-led tactics by blue-chip corporates that want to use data to compete with disruptive upstarts and then offer compelling products to their own customers.
“The market is moving very quickly as clients are looking to really take advantage of data in combination with technology. That convergence is what makes the area of data management and the development of data-management solutions such an attractive space to work within,” he says, before adding that digital leaders operating in this marketplace need to stay on their toes.
“There is also an overabundance of data,” says Breakstone. “Businesses and investors are looking at their own data as an example and they are trying to get more out of their own information, but they’re also increasingly looking to third parties to bring in new data that they can combine with the data that they have and help them gain new insights or ultimately make better decisions.”
Staying one step ahead of the competition
Breakstone has relished the challenge of providing better products and services to his organisation’s customers over the past six years. As for what he’s looking to achieve during the next few years, he says he faces a challenge that is familiar to all digital leaders: “There’s just so much data out there, so how do you differentiate yourself for your customers?”
That is a particularly intractable challenge for a firm like S&P, which holds huge numbers of datasets and whose success and growth as a business relies on the ability of senior managers within the company – such as Breakstone – to help it find new ways to serve up valuable insight to its customers around the world.
“Data management is one of the most interesting, innovative and dynamic spaces in technology”
Warren Breakstone, S&P
“It doesn’t help your clients if you push hundreds of datasets to them and just say, ‘here, have it’,” he says. “The process for clients to select what data they’re going to rely on is very expensive. And that process is not just about purchasing the data. They’ve also got to structure the data and they’ve got to link it to other data that they have.”
In an attempt to stay ahead of its competitors, Breakstone is helping S&P to consider how a tranche of emerging technologies can improve its products and services. “What we’re often trying to do, and I think where we’re going to go in the future, is really thinking about how do we make it easier for clients to choose what data is most relevant to them,” he says.
“How do we couple that data and link the information with other data that they’re using? How do we enhance the data with machine-learning technologies? For us, it starts with the data, but it’s about how best we build on top of that data and our work continue to move up the value curve, so that we create great products for our clients.”
Deploying strategic platforms for customers
Breakstone says the overabundance of data that all modern business leaders have to deal with is like a perfect storm. Senior executives have access to more information from more sources than ever before, and companies that can help turn this data into insight have a huge opportunity. That opening keeps Breakstone busy in his day-to-day role at S&P.
“Every day is about innovation,” he says. “Our clients’ needs are continuing to change – they’re certainly not static. And as an organisation, we are so well positioned to serve these clients – we have the combination of the data and the technology. I’m very excited about the opportunities we have. I’m also blessed to work with colleagues who have a similar passion for serving clients, and for looking for opportunities to innovate. So it’s a great role.”
S&P Global Market Intelligence is focused on providing data and technology to institutional markets, such as investment managers, banks and insurance firms, and also to corporates, professional services firm and non-financial organisations. Within his role, Breakstone is responsible for a series of business units focused on data management.
He says one of his big achievements during the past few years has involved the deployment of the S&P Global Marketplace. He describes this as a strategic platform for the business that brings together all the data from S&P’s four key business units – Market Intelligence, Ratings, Index and Platts. The data from these units is then enriched with third-party data and technology tools, such as artificial intelligence (AI).
“So it’s our data, alternative data and technological solutions, all brought together on a single platform and made available to our clients for the first time – and clients are able to access it through application programming interfaces, our XpressFeed product, which is bulk data delivery, as well as through cloud distribution,” he says.
Building trusted supplier partnerships
Breakstone says a culture of collaboration is central to the success of his team’s IT development activities. He refers back to the example of the S&P Global Marketplace, which was co-designed with the company’s clients in an iterative and joined-up process.
Working closely with customers gives Breakstone and his team a strong awareness of the technologies that are proving popular across the financial services industry. He says his team noticed that more businesses were forging stronger partnerships with cloud and data companies, including Snowflake, with which S&P is working to create innovative solutions to new customer challenges.
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To that end, S&P Global Market Intelligence started a collaboration with the technology company last September. Breakstone’s team is using the partnership to deliver datasets to finance clients through Snowflake’s cloud-hosted environment
Development work on the S&P Global Marketplace continues apace and Breakstone and his colleagues recently announced the addition of more than 25 new datasets from S&P Global, which means there are now more than 55 datasets available to the firm’s clients via Snowflake.
“It’s the first time that we’ve brought together everything that we have within S&P Global,” he says. “And it’s coupled with great proprietary research to help complement and supplement the content. The tools within the platform allow our customers to run analysis quickly and easily.”
Turning information into business value
Breakstone says his team has also focused a lot of its attention on introducing new datasets during the past year. This process has involved a focus on three core categories. First, environmental, social and governance (ESG) data, to support the decisions that blue-chip executives make today, whether investment decisions, business decisions or capital allocation decisions, which Breakstone says are all taken through an ESG lens.
The second area his data team has invested in is textual data. Using a combination of compute power and machine learning, Breakstone’s team has taken about 13,000 quarterly earnings reports by companies going back about 12 years and made those transcripts machine readable. S&P customers can then consume the data to make their own decisions.
Finally, his team has dedicated time and resources to movement data, which involves combining data around people and products to see how factors change over time. Examples that Breakstone cites include property movements in a particular region and supply chain transactions, such as the movement of cargo in ships.
As well as data, his team continues to invest in new client-facing tools. The team recently added collaborative analytics platform Workbench to the S&P Global Marketplace, and a set of machine-learning tools from specialist Kensho. Workbench gives S&P customers the opportunity to explore pre-built notebooks across a web-based environment.
“There’s just so much data out there that our clients are often challenged with finding what is the right data for their needs and to make better decisions,” says Breakstone. “We’ve really invested a lot to provide those types of tools and capabilities to help our clients find what is most relevant to them, and to really separate the wheat from the chaff.
“We need to think about how we make it easier for our customers to get value and utility out of the data. That’s all about how do we as an organisation help them achieve the goals that they’ve set to satisfy their own end customers. And as long as we maintain that tight connectivity with our clients, we’ll stay ahead of the pack.”